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I Hear America Scatting

The new Ken Burns series on jazz is good television but sketchy history

by Francis Davis

PRESS releases for Jazz -- a ten-part series that airs this month on public television and that the documentary filmmaker and amateur historian Ken Burns has described as the final part of a trilogy including The Civil War (1990) and Baseball (1994) -- give the title in capital letters. The series practically demands as much, in recognition of its own importance and the comparable importance it attempts to confer on its subjects. Having discovered America twice already, at Harpers Ferry and Appomattox, and then in the general vicinity of Yankee Stadium and Ebbets Field, Burns has sighted it again -- this time in the unsuspecting persons of Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke, the teenagers who danced to Benny Goodman's big band in the aisles of a Times Square movie theater in 1937, and their black counterparts at the Savoy Ballroom, Harlem's "home of happy feet" years before white kids caught the jitterbug.


seahorse picture Jazz in The Atlantic Monthly
A collection of Atlantic articles on jazz from 1922 to the present.

Burns put himself on the cultural map with his series on the Civil War, an impressive piece of filmmaking in which nearly every element worked to spellbinding effect. The series wasn't just for buffs, some of whom might have been a little put off by its emphasis on human suffering rather than on battle strategy. Without undue sermonizing, Burns managed to suggest that this country was still divided over race and questions of national identity. But he next made a gabby series on baseball that was awash in sentimentality. I was one of the many who stuck with Baseball because it was the only game in town in the fall of 1994: the major leagues were on strike, there were no playoffs and World Series, and I needed my annual fix. I remember wanting to grab a ball myself and bean the next joker Burns coaxed into mugging for the camera and singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

Discuss this article in the Arts & Culture conference of Post & Riposte.

More on arts and culture in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

Jazz in The Atlantic Monthly
A collection of Atlantic articles on jazz from 1922 to the present.

"Black and White Intertwined," by William H. Youngren (February 1999)
A groundbreaking new history documents the rich collaboration between black and white players in the early decades of jazz.

"Like Young," by Francis Davis (July 1996)
Jazz has been attracting its first young audiences in decades -- but are they hearing a music without a future?

"Born Out of Time," by Francis Davis (April 1988)
Wynton Marsalis and his contemporaries recapitulate modern jazz.

"Jazz, Hot and Cold," by Arnold Sundgaard (July 1955)
A discussion of the position of jazz in 1955.

"Jazz Today," by Whitney Balliett (November 1953)
"American jazz is in a peculiar but encouraging position today. Loved all over the world, it is still regarded as somewhat of a black sheep at home."

"Jazz: A Musical Discussion," by Carl Engel (August 1922)
"Jazz is upon us, everywhere. To deny the fact is to assume the classic ostrich pose, head buried in the sand, tail feathers to the sun."

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "The Shape of Jazz and What's to Come" (December 4, 1997)
Tom Piazza and Eric Nisenson discuss the current state -- and future -- of one of America's most celebrated art forms.

Interviews: "Bebop and Beyond?," (July 1996)
Francis Davis, author of Bebop and Nothingness: Jazz and Pop at the End of the Century, talks about jazz in the nineties -- its influences, rising stars, and prospects for the future.

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns
The official companion Web site to Ken Burns's PBS series. The site includes musicians' and composers' biographies; information about cities that played a significant role in the history of jazz; music clips; and nationwide events listings.

Ken Burns: Jazz
General information about the documentary, a biography of Ken Burns, related links, and ordering information for the show's companion book and CDs. Posted by Legacy Recordings, the company that produced the Jazz boxed set of CDs.

All About Jazz
An online magazine offering jazz articles, interviews, reviews, musician profiles, performance notices, a timeline of jazz history, and more.

Jerry Jazz Musician
Interviews, biographies, suggested reading, and artistic portraits and sketches pertaining to jazz greats and American jazz history.

Global Music Network: Jazz
The jazz area of a comprehensive music Web site that offers articles, reviews, discussion forums, and downloadable music.

Jazz Online
Jazz reviews, message boards, digital downloads, musician profiles, and an overview of jazz history.

A few seconds into the first episode the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis -- a senior creative consultant to the series, who is onscreen so much that he might as well have been given star billing -- informs us that "jazz music objectifies America" and gives us a "painless way of understanding ourselves." His declaration is followed by a montage of the music's major figures over which the actor Keith David, reading copy supplied by Geoffrey C. Ward (who also co-wrote the scripts for Burns's two previous series), solemnly intones that jazz is "an improvisational art, making itself up as it goes along, just like the country that gave it birth." The lecture continues throughout the series, delivered by Marsalis and others. Close to the end Marsalis restates the theme with a little extra spin, as he might do with a melody to conclude a performance with his band. Jazz "gives us a glimpse into what America is going to be when it becomes itself," he says, talking in the way that presidential candidates are prone to do -- as if believing that democracy is a form of existentialism.

Marsalis shares Burns's long-standing propensity for overstatement in the service of high ideals. Burns lets Marsalis and others get away with so much in Jazz -- presenting the character and motivations of long-dead musicians, for example, without distinguishing between legend and actual memory -- that his methods as a documentarian are open to question, along with his credentials as a social historian.

AFTER some preliminary flag-waving, Burns's new series begins with the hoariest of creation myths: that New Orleans was the single birthplace of jazz, something I doubt anyone besides Burns and his New Orleans-born senior creative consultant believes. It ends with the latest in resurrection myths: that Marsalis's arrival on the scene in 1980 saved jazz from death at the hands of self-indulgent avant-gardists and purveyors of jazz-rock fusion (we're even shown snapshots of the baby Wynton).

Marsalis's musicianship is above reproach, and his evolution from Miles Davis sound-alike to composer in the rich vein of Duke Ellington has been as interesting to follow as it was unanticipated. What hasn't changed since 1980 is his scorn for newer forms of jazz that he finds deviant and unworthy of the name. As a thinker, Marsalis -- like the writer Stanley Crouch, his confidant and associate in producing the Jazz at Lincoln Center program -- is a disciple of Albert Murray, an African-American writer usually referred to as a novelist but celebrated more for his nonfiction. Using the terms "jazz" and "blues" interchangeably in books such as The Omni-Americans (1970), The Hero and the Blues (1973), and Stomping the Blues (1976), and rarely stooping to address specific performances, Murray has formulated an aesthetic of jazz that sounds like an ontological creed. "What makes man human is style," Murray wrote in The Omni-Americans, and "all human effort beyond the lowest level of the struggle for animal subsistence is motivated by the need to live in style."

This effort includes the blues, which Murray and his adherents define as celebration rather than as social protest or an expression of sorrow. Jazz to them represents an extension of the blues: something either is jazz or isn't, depending on whether or not it reveals an obvious blues sensibility. This sensibility is not exclusively black. Marsalis has been accused of practicing reverse racism (or "Crow Jim," as musicians call it) in his role as artistic director for the Lincoln Center program, but this is unfair. His bias is not against white musicians -- he has hired any number of them for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra -- but against anyone whose music, improvised or not, he suspects of being tainted by European influences and deficient in the blues. The problem with this point of view is that it puts the most innovative jazz of the past few decades off limits.

Nonetheless, jazz is principally black, coming as it does "from a consciousness of those who are outside of something but in the middle of it," as Marsalis tells us at one point in Burns's opening episode. He is here echoing another of Murray's tenets, which is itself an upbeat variation on W.E.B. DuBois's notion of African-American double consciousness. The black musicians who invented jazz and their original black audiences were denied the full benefits of American democracy, Marsalis explains, "but that doesn't alter the fact that they [were] American, and ... that they [had] access to all of the information that Americans have access to." Such thoughts understandably resonate with Burns, whose theme has become America's struggle to live up to its democratic ideals. Burns has admitted to knowing little about jazz going into this project, and he seems to have learned most of what he now knows about the subject from Marsalis. With Crouch and Murray on the board of advisers and serving as commentators, what we're getting is the party line.

THE series sets out to trace the history of jazz from its birth as Negro folk music to its present bewilderment of styles, but pretty much gives up after Ornette Coleman's introduction of free improvisation, in 1959. This may be because that's about the time when jazz ceased to be a sociological phenomenon. In contrast to the dawdling multiple episodes on early jazz and swing, and the single episodes on bebop and its 1950s offshoots, the final episode crams forty years of musical ferment into less than two hours. Although not billed as an epilogue, it resembles one. It also resembles a eulogy, despite repeated assurances that jazz is alive and well, largely thanks to Marsalis. Burns could have left himself more room at the end by being more tough-minded at the editing table -- and more tough-minded in general. Does it contribute to our understanding of jazz to know that Armstrong didn't find true love until his fourth marriage? Did we need to spend quite so much time at the Savoy Ballroom?

Nearly every jazz critic I know has been angrily compiling his or her own list of current performers who were unfairly omitted from the series. Though my list of missing persons includes Albert Ayler, Keith Jarrett, and Sun Ra, it begins long before 1960. Jazz tells us nothing, or very little, about Mildred Bailey, Benny Carter, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Lennie Tristano, Erroll Garner, Art Pepper, any of Ellington's sidemen, or any of the arrangers -- except Fletcher Henderson -- who gave the big bands of the 1940s their trademark sounds. For that matter, many of the figures cited in the final episode fail to receive their proper due. Charles Mingus is hailed as "second only to Ellington in the breadth and complexity of his compositions," yet nothing is said about him as a link between Ellington and the contemporary avant-garde. That Mingus is brought in at all seems merely in the service of making a point about a growing mood of militancy on the part of black musicians in the decades after bebop. (The same is true of a cursory mention of the Art Ensemble of Chicago.) Bill Evans was the most influential pianist of the past forty years, but all we learn about him is that he once played with Miles Davis and was white. You'd think he was significant only as an example of the black trumpeter's enlightened employment policy.

IN fairness, Jazz is enjoyable television. The commentary by the essayist Gerald Early and by the jazz critic Gary Giddins is perceptive. A wealth of great music is excerpted, ranging from Jelly Roll Morton's "Dead Man Blues" to John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme," and Burns puts faces on it by drawing on an artful assortment of clips. Much of this footage will be familiar to hard-core jazz fans -- Duke Ellington musing at the piano ("dreaming," he calls it) for Edward R. Murrow on Person to Person; Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie vengefully ripping through a number after being condescended to by the entertainment columnist Earl Wilson; Billie Holiday and Lester Young ruefully eyeing each other as they perform a blues with an all-star group in 1957, when both of them were staring down death. But it will be new to most viewers, and I dare them to resist it.

The white musicians featured in the series, beginning with Bix Beiderbecke, are invariably depicted as alienated outsiders, but they are treated with respect as bona fide jazzmen. The episodes on the 1920s, which are the most poetic in the series, are essentially the story of Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong metaphorically calling to each other from steamboats and orchestra pits (they were prohibited from playing together except after hours).

Along with Ellington, Armstrong is one of two figures Burns chronicles from cradle to grave, in what seems as much a bid for human interest as an acknowledgment of their seminal roles in jazz. Ellington, a guarded man who was a master of diversionary chitchat, eludes Burns, but Armstrong is captured in all his troubling complexity. My favorite moment in the entire series is a clip of Armstrong playing "Tiger Rag," in Copenhagen in 1933. Announcing the tune without looking his audience in the eyes, and appearing to shuffle even though standing still, he really does seem a stereotype of the servile Negro. Then he begins to play, hitting high note after high note with a look of masculine determination. "That horn could kill a man," the actor Ossie Davis, guilty of only slight exaggeration, tells us several episodes later -- though you do have to wonder why Ossie Davis in particular qualifies as a commentator.

Burns is big on sociological context, so the music unfolds against a backdrop of speakeasies and bread lines, dance crazes and world wars, lynchings and civil-rights marches. The series certainly looks good, and it sounds good, too, if you ignore Keith David's overenunciated delivery (he sounds like he was bitten by the same bug that got Maya Angelou) and the melodramatic readings by a host of other actors of newspaper editorials, passages from musicians' autobiographies, and texts by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ralph Ellison, and Langston Hughes.

From the archives:

"Charlie Haden, Bass," by Francis Davis (August 2000)
No other instrument in jazz is more essential than the bass, both backbone and heartbeat, and Haden is its master.

There is a good deal of valuable oral history here too: Mercedes Ellington reminiscing about what a curious fellow her grandfather Duke was; Doc Cheatham recounting subbing for Armstrong and being dressed down by Bessie Smith; Artie Shaw explaining his disenchantment with fame; the writers James Lincoln Collier and James T. Maher and two former Savoy Ballroom regulars remembering the excitement of hearing the big bands; Jackie McLean revealing that as a young musician he so wanted to sound like Charlie Parker that he was willing to forgo originality; Lester Bowie joking about practicing trumpet as a child with the window open, in case Louis Armstrong was passing by; Charlie Haden talking about breaking the rules of conventional tonality with the alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman. (I should say here that a few years ago Lynn Novick, who is listed along with Burns as a producer for the series, and Peter Miller, one of two co-producers, took me to lunch to get my ideas about possible interviewees. I may have suggested some of these people; I honestly don't remember.)

But the series features too many talking heads, and talking isn't all they do. With Marsalis as the prime offender, they frequently sing scat to demonstrate something about the music under discussion, getting the rhythm right but not the intervals. It isn't necessarily any easier to hear musicians doing this than it is to hear civilians, and it's a relief whenever Marsalis picks up his horn to make his point. Annoying as Marsalis can be, though, he takes a back seat to the preening Matt Glaser, a violinist who performed on the soundtracks of The Civil War and Baseball and who turns up every so often to share an insight on, say, Armstrong's relationship to the space-time continuum. Glaser sounds like one of those guys you overhear trying to impress their dates in jazz clubs, only it's us he's trying to score with.

AS much as jazz fans seem to bicker, our typical reaction to a project aimed at the public is not to ask whether it's any good but to ask whether it's good for jazz. In this case the answer is yes. The music is exciting, and everyone talks about it in a way that stirs the imagination. To novices who watch the series and find themselves eager to attend a few concerts or buy a few CDs (even if all that scatting strikes them as the jazz buff's version of air guitar), the debate among insiders about who and what should not have been left out of Jazz will seem petty. Music isn't baseball; there are no statistics for measuring achievement, and Burns is as entitled to his opinions as I am to mine -- even if his seem to come wholesale from Marsalis and company.

The larger problems with the series stem from the dubious habits Burns has picked up since The Civil War. For every person we hear speaking from experience, another comes along to tell us things he couldn't possibly know. Talking with certainty about events in the lives of Armstrong and Ellington, Marsalis might as well be a televangelist chatting confidentially about Jesus. Of the semi-mythical early-twentieth-century New Orleans cornetist Buddy Bolden, Marsalis says, "[His] innovation was one of personality, so instead of playing all this fast stuff, he would bring you the sound of Buddy Bolden." How could he know? No recording of Bolden survives, and he is said to have played in public for the last time in 1907. As Marsalis speaks, we hear a trumpeter on the soundtrack playing a rollicking blues, with no indication that it's a recent performance by Marsalis. Most viewers will probably assume it's Bolden, and will surely accept what Marsalis says about him.

As in Baseball, Burns shows tendencies toward cockeyed legend, cut-rate sociology, and amateur psychoanalysis. Talking about Bix Beiderbecke, who drank himself to death before he was thirty, Margo Jefferson, a columnist for The New York Times, suggests that the trumpeter was "harmed" by not being allowed to prove himself alongside black musicians who were his equal or better. But Beiderbecke regularly played and recorded with very good white musicians, such as Frankie Trumbauer, Eddie Lang, and Tommy Dorsey. And in the 1920s Armstrong played with no one of his own caliber either, with the exception of Sidney Bechet and the pianist Earl Hines (and possibly Johnny and Baby Dodds). He and Beiderbecke were ahead of everybody else, black or white.

Loosely drifting through Jazz are the elements for several smaller and better films Burns might have made, including lovingly detailed ones on Armstrong and the Savoy Ballroom. In taking on the entire history of jazz he doomed himself to incompleteness and superficiality. Jazz is a melting pot of African and European influences that, as Gary Giddins reasonably observes in the opening episode, only America could have cooked up. To insist that it bear the weight of its nation's highest ideals at every turn may be asking too much of it -- or of any art form.

Francis Davis is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. He is at work on a biography of John Coltrane and a history of jazz.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 2001; I Hear America Scatting - 01.01; Volume 287, No. 1; page 76-79.